But these SPAC shows were something else altogether. If we ignore the Ghost, we have what may very well be the grand Phish Hat Trick/Trifecta of jams: Drowned (labeled Saratoga Jam on LP), to close set I, is fucking phenomenal. Downright absurd. Completely focused and zoned in for the entire 22 minutes, this jam starts out, and then finishes, in the grandest of all forms of Hose, with only a handful of Trey's "signature" pull-off Post-Hiatus (PH) licks that he throws in whenever he doesn't have any ideas (you know what I'm talking about; he plays it in every solo, that 3-4 note descending flurry he starts every line with). In between, we have focused exploration and interplay with brilliant and inventive playing by all, not simply filler noodling. I dare give this an A/A+ rating (probably about only 2 points below the previous night's Piper). This is serious business, people.
Then we move on to the Set II opening of Seven Below. Patience pays off, as the band drives themselves to a similar Rawk Peak Hose climax. Its not quite as jaw-dropping as the Drowned, but it is magnificent, and truly deserving of a solid B/B+.
The Ghost is kind of an anomoly in this set, because it doesn't go anywhere, climax-wise, but it does engage in a nice, open groove for the entirety of the jam. Interesting to note, Trey does not sing this version. You can hear him come in a few times with his off-kilter cyclic phrasing, but this is all Fishman. Strangely, the one word that immediately came to mind during this jam was the word "Bulbous". This is a wide open, poofed-up groove. Its big; its got space. It has a unique vibe, but it was a vibe not attuned to Big Rawk Peak. This served as the valley between the bookends, the chill out bobble between the jumping-up-and-down screaming climaxes of Seven Below and the following Twist. Almost a musical setbreak, the way that the actual setbreak served to bridge the insanity of Drowned and Seven Below. An interesting Ghost, with a unique chilled out vibe.
But you know whats up with the smoooove segue into Twist. The segue into Ghost wasn't bad, but this segue into Twist is ab-so-lute-ly BUTTER. Immediately from the get-go, this one is on. Really animated and energetic hi-hat playing from Fishman, and everybody is giving him and Gordon room, who has turned on his liquid Boogie On effect. Page is rockin' it on the clav, and the jam has noticeably sped up by the 10 minute mark, although it has opened up just as much; theres TONS of space here. Trey is patiently sustained a couple notes and chords in between, and the energy comes wayyyy down, almost to silence. But Trey brings it back with a REALLY cool chord progression/riff. AND HE HAS TURNED OFF HIS OVERDRIVE!!!!!! NO OVERDRIVE!!!! NO CCRRRZZZZAAAANNNNKKKKK SQUAWKING!!!! This is fucking great stuff. It grooves around for a while, with Page adding nice colors with his clav by playing a lot of sustained chords and notes, and Trey patiently grooves it behind. Eventually Trey does turn his overdrive back on, but its working... and its not overkill. It works somehow, and he starts playing some really cool lead lines once we get to the 13 minute mark, continuing with some really interesting lines that are absolutely not his standard fare. You can hear Gordon bobbing and bouncing joyfully underneith, and by 14 minutes, you know that this is going to get fun. Fishman is keeping the same busy/energetic groove going on, and Trey is clearly outlining a distinct melody and progression for the jam to base off.
Finally, at 15 minutes, Page decides to FINALLY move to his organ for the first time all set. And this clearly inspires Trey, because it immediately starts The Lift Off. And now, we are FIRMLY underway to Ecstasy. Yeahh!!! Go Trey!!!! He fumbles a bit, but, being a guitar player, I can tell its because he got so lost in the moment that his fingers just fumbled the small frets high up the neck. But boy does he recover! At 16:30, he's shooting half-time machine gun licks at us, and riveting the jam up higher and higher. His PH lick comes in at 17 minutes, but whatever, becuase he starts his GLORIOUS trilling at 17:10, and NOW WE'RE HERE!!!!
From 17 minutes onward, this is pure brilliance. OMG GO Trey!!!! Gordon is inventively bumping underneith, and Fishman is smackin the shit out of his ride while Page matches Trey on the piano. TREY TRILLING!!!!!!! ASCENDING!!!!! Ahhhh!!!!!! Total hose!!! Trey comes down into standard licks by 18:30, and a new groove develops that is really interesting. The trill-Hose could have certainly gone on longer, but I know that Trey just lost the frets in the lights and energy of that moment. This outro groove is REALLY fucking cool though. REALLY FUCKING cool. Just about 20 minutes on the dot, its over. Solid, solid A.
Anyway, the Drowned, Seven Below, and Ghost->Twist are probably the, in my book the greatest trio of jams the band ever played. And this is not even counting the YEM, which you knew had to be next. It hadn't been played yet, and it was the ONLY thing that could have possibly topped all of what had just happened.
Yes, greater jams had been had, but I can't think of any instance where 3 absolute hosers came one right after the other. Theres always great jams, and then theres those jams that defy greatness, and truly exemplify what Phish is and can do, by bringing you to musical peaks you couldn't even imagine, where the playing and harmonic content is as unique as the energy level is high.
Don't let the haters pull you in: 2004 had some of the absolute best Phish ever. The true highs of this year rival anything the band ever played, and I will vehemently argue that the 6/19/04 Piper, 6/20/04 Drowned, 6/23/04 Crosseyed/Noblesville Jam -> Slave, 6/26/04 Boogie On -> Alpine Jam -> Ghost, and the 8/10/04 ACDC Bag are amongst the greatest things the band ever played. Yes, that includes 11/17/97, Big Cypress, 6/18/94, Providence Bowie, Fleezer, 12/16/99 Tweezer... and honestly, including the 7/22/03 Gumbo, I would say that the 6/19/04 Piper and 8/10/04 ACDC Bag are easily amongst the top 10 jams of all time. The 6/23/04 Crosseyed -> Jam -> Slave bit might be also, because that has some truly, truly brilliant and imaginative playing within its context of Classic Hose Peak. The same with the Alpine Valley Boogie On -> Jam -> Ghost. The Boogie On jam is the same as the Crosseyed Jam from 6/23/04: Classic Hose Peak with great fucking playing, and the Ghost has a really inventive peak climax also that is really cool, based on some neat chordal playing from Trey.
Anyway, thats it. Just wanted to make sure people know what kind of brilliance actually lays hidden beneath the mire of most of PH. The highs were higher than ever before, because the band had continually evolved and grown, and when they really went THERE, as in the 7/22/03 Gumbo, 6/19/04 Piper, and 8/10/04 ACDC Bag (GORDON'S SLAP BASS LINES AT THE START OF THE JAM!!!!), it was beyond comprehension.